Not So Flaky

"Play 'Redneck Mother'!": Johnny Hickman and David Lowery of Cracker.

In 1984, David Lowery was the primary songwriter, guitarist, and lead singer of the newly formed Camper Van Beethoven. In 1994, he was the primary songwriter, guitarist, and lead singer of Cracker. In 2004, he is the primary songwriter, guitarist, and lead singer of both bands. And he's in Alaska.

"Alaska fits in at the end of our tours," the 43-year-old Lowery says. "There are actually enough people up here in the cities that it actually makes sense. We actually make money coming up here.

"We tour pretty extensively all over the world nowadays," he continues. "We didn't used to do so much, but in the last month, we started out with two weeks in Spain, and then we did the Rocky Mountains. We're up here in Alaska. We're headed down to Florida. We're all over the world. We're a cult band, like, worldwide now. We can pretty much go anywhere we want."

On top of touring the world as the front man of two iconic alternative bands, Lowery now owns a recording studio in Richmond, Virginia, where he's produced, among others, Joan Osborne, Sparklehorse, and German oddity FSK, as well as most of his countless side projects. He's recently revived and relocated (from California to Athens, Georgia) the Pitch-A-Tent record label and even acted in an independent movie or two.

"Artists that just sort of have that one thing," Lowery says, "they do stuff that I used to do but I don't do anymore. It actually works better in a way than focusing all your energy on one project. I don't really run my record label. Velena Vego, who helps book the 40 Watt [Club, in Athens], runs that. I don't really run the recording studio. There are two other people who do that, and so it's really not that hard. I really, essentially, just do the same things that I would for Cracker. I just sort of get up in the morning... and then eventually that day I'll either get around to playing some music or writing some music or producing somebody's record, or something like that. But, essentially, it's all the same thing -- listening to songs, figuring out what's wrong with them, what needs to be changed, or what's great about them."

Though Lowery's first band, Camper Van Beethoven, has been touring off and on as a double bill with Cracker since a 1999 reunion (even issuing a cover album of Fleetwood Mac's 1979 album Tusk on Pitch-A-Tent in 2002), this fall marks the first release of new CVB material since the group's rather contentious split some 15 years ago.

"We've been working on it very slowly," Lowery says, "because obviously Cracker put out a record in the interim, and we're touring to support that. Our goal has always been to put out a record in October of 2004, because a lot of the stuff will work nicely with the elections in November."

Cracker's latest record, Countrysides, is a collection of eight outlaw country cover songs (most recognizable are Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition," and Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall , Redneck Mother") and one Lowery original, a musical middle finger to former record label Virgin titled "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself."

Given the slapdash recording history of both Cracker and Camper, the careening renditions that make up the nine-song Countrysides fit right in with the rest of Lowery's extensive catalog. But the band played various honky-tonks and biker bars under the pseudonym Ironic Mullet to road-test its material.

"Country bars aren't country bars, really," Lowery says. "They're like classic rock and country bars. You've got to play some Stones; you've got to play some AC/DC, some Southern rock. I like Skynyrd, actually. I'm a completely unabashed Skynyrd fan. There's only irony in what we did in that we kind of knew it wasn't exactly us. Like, we love the shit we play. We weren't making fun of it."

Though no Lowery-fronted band has worked from a set list in more than a decade, cross-generational crowd pleasers like "Redneck Mother," as well as certain Lowery-penned alt-rock classics, are likely to be heard at any Cracker/Camper performance. He knows they gotta give the crowd what they came for.

"Counting Camper Van Beethoven," Lowery says, "we've been around 20 years, and if we didn't play something off of every record, I think our fans would be disappointed. So, in that light, we probably play less off of the new record, but I have 12 real albums to draw from. People expect us to play 'Eurotrash Girl' almost more than they expect us to play 'Low.' And really, internationally, 'Eurotrash Girl' is actually our biggest song. People in South America know that song. People in India know that song. I'd say those two have to be played. But then there are weird things. Like, if we don't play 'Big Dipper,' people get really upset with us. Somebody will write us a nasty e-mail. With Camper Van Beethoven, I'd have to say it would be 'Take the Skinheads Bowling,' but, you know, that's no surprise. You know, it's just such a weird song that we really don't mind doing it."

Twenty years into a successful musical career -- with a studio, record label, production projects, two full-time bands, and umpteen collaborations in the works -- it seems Lowery would be reluctant to get on the road again, especially covering distances like the 5,600 miles between Alaska and South Florida.

"The thing about it is," Lowery says, "touring is part of the way we make a living. Nobody gets rich being a musician unless you have many, many gold-selling or platinum-selling albums, so, in one way, you have to tour. In another way, it is our connection to the world."

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